Over the past several decades, considerable research attention has been given to first-generation college students in order to help improve their graduation rates. This is clearly an important issue, as 62% of first-generation college students fall short of their educational aspirations within eight years of high school graduation (1) and because first-generation college students composed nearly 16% of the nation’s incoming freshman class in 2005 (2). Fortunately, recent research has identified some of the ways that first-generation college students are different from their non-first-generation peers and how those differences can actually be leveraged into strengths and greater success (such as improved GPA).
Previous research on this topic has noted several interesting characteristics of first-generation college students that highlight many of the unique challenges they face and must be resilient to overcome. For example, as early as the seventh grade, students whose parents never attended college expect college to have fewer benefits and perceive more barriers to college than their peers whose parents did attend college (3). In addition, first-generation college students tend to have less parental support (4), more traumatic life experiences (5), and more life stressors (6). In college, these students interact less with their professors (7), earn lower GPAs (8), and have lower graduation rates than students whose parents attended college (9, 1).
Interestingly, relatively recent investigations indicate that there actually might be a cultural mismatch between first-generation college students and American universities. That is, these students (who tend to be ethnic minorities and from a lower socio-economic level [10, 2]) tend to possess a collectivist culture that is incongruent with the individualistic culture seen in many American universities.
For instance, when asked why they are attending college, many first-generation college students cite familial reasons, such as bringing honor to their family name or earning extra income for their parents (11). Conversely, non-first-generation college students cite more independent reasons for attending college, such as fulfilling their personal goals (8). A survey of administrators at American universities indicated that they value independent attributes on their campuses — such as working alone toward a goal — more than communal values (8). Thus, with universities valuing independence and first-generation college students valuing interdependence, it is natural that this mismatch would result in some challenges in navigating the university system.
Fascinating research has shown that when given a letter portraying the university as embracing communal attitudes before taking exams of verbal and visual-spatial skills (engineering or math skills), first-generation college students perform just as well as non-first-generation college students (8). However, when the university culture was framed as embracing independent attitudes, first-generation college students performed worse than non-first-generation college students (8). When taken together, such evidence suggests that this cultural mismatch appears to be at least one of the reasons that many first-generation college students tend to struggle at the university level.
A couple of recent studies have uncovered simple, effective methods that actually improve the GPAs and success of first-generation students by addressing this cultural mismatch (12, 13). For example, having first-generation college students write for a total of just 30 minutes (over the course of one semester) about a personal value in their lives increased not only their course grade, but also their overall GPA (by .24 points) when compared to first-generation college students who did not participate in the writing assignment (12). This simple intervention was able to reduce the achievement gap between first-generation college students and non-first-generation college students by 50% (12). In another study, providing first-generation college students with a one-hour college orientation that explicitly addressed social class and cultural differences (rather than talking around them or acting as if they don’t exist) also increased GPAs, improved college adjustment, decreased stress, and led to greater use of college resources (such as visiting professors during office hours) compared to first-generation students who attended a regular orientation (13). Powerfully, attending this one-hour orientation eliminated any performance gap in GPA between first-generation college students and non-first-generation college students (13).
So, what are the implications of all of this research? First of all, it is important to recognize that some cultural differences exist between first-generation college students and American universities. For example, first-generation students might feel that they don’t fit in on a college campus because of their background — whether ethnical, financial, or cultural. Further, having a collectivist background means that many first-generation college students reasonably expect to receive more direct guidance and support from professors and peers about assignments rather than simply receiving open-ended, hands-off responses.
Second, and perhaps most important, is the fact that certain universities might be a better fit for some students than others. That is, attending smaller universities (such as private schools) may lead to higher graduation rates for first-generation college students than attending public universities. Research bears this out: Within six years of starting college, only 54% of first-generation college students graduate from public universities, while 68% of first-generation college students graduate from private universities (14). It might be that the private university setting, in some cases, allows for a more closely guided educational experience (though this can likely be found at particular public universities, as well).
In conclusion, it is very important to discuss — explicitly — with first-generation college students the challenges they might face due to social class and cultural differences. Though it can be difficult to discuss these issues of race, social class, and culture, they are important factors that cannot be ignored. It appears that being aware of these challenges and how to overcome them (such as by using college resources and making connections on campus), while also recognizing and appreciating the unique strengths of their own upbringing, can lead to success. Culturally, these issues are not always openly discussed, which might leave students wondering why they don’t fit in. However, once students are aware of these issues, the research has shown that they are much more likely to find success.
In addition, it is of great importance to be in a college or university that provides strong mentorship, guidance, and direction, especially if that is what the student identifies with. As stated earlier, many private institutions provide this — along with strong academics — because of their smaller size. It is important to note that, despite their expensive price tags, private universities tend to have many scholarship and funding opportunities for those who need help. So students should not be dissuaded as they can simply contact the administration offices and inquire. Most important is that our first-generation college students, who are attending college at higher rates than ever before, actually graduate from college — and without high amounts of debt.
So, what do you think? Were you, are you, or will you be a first-generation college student? Do these research findings fit with your experiences? Why or why not? If you are or were a first-gen college student, what advice would you offer to first-gen students today? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.
About the Author
Christian A. Latino is a research assistant for ACT. He holds a B.A. in psychology from UCLA and is currently a doctoral trainee in counseling psychology at The University of Iowa.
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